Here is Hillary Clinton as seen by many: calculating, lacking principle, lacking conviction, driven by power and ambition. After eight years in the White House, two Senate races, and a term as secretary of state, she is followed by the popular image of a candidate willing to do whatever or be whoever, so long as the polls say she should.
Here is how Hillary Clinton sees herself: radically consistent, motivated by a core philosophy — voiced now through two words rarely associated with her. “Love and kindness.” If this sounds unlikely, she knows it. For 50 years, she’s struggled to explain the values that motivate her — in public life, as a candidate, as a person. The one time she really tried to, in the early 1990s, she was brutally mocked. In the view of some of her closest aides, Clinton never fully recovered from the critical backlash.
Now, Clinton doesn't talk about this much, not like she did then. On this particular day, after a routine campaign event at a college in Manchester, New Hampshire — after taking photos and giving a speech, after getting a question from the audience about the women who’ve alleged they were sexually assaulted by her husband and answering it without hesitation or alarm, after moving onto the noise and chaos of a crowded rope line —Clinton is shepherded away to the quiet of an available room: the building’s industrial-style kitchen. And it’s in this setting, seated in a fold-out chair at a small table, that Clinton seems almost surprised by the most basic line of questioning: why she runs.
“I think most people who interview me never ask me,” she says. “They nibble a little bit around the edges but there's very—” Clinton turns to the one aide present, her press secretary, also seated at the table, and asks him to think back: “I don't know of very many instances in the last 14 years that we've had these kinds of conversations.”
She has been asked every day, for decades, what she thinks, but rarely why. And here, next to a dishwasher, Clinton slides right back into the subject. Her words are slow and deliberate and she takes the conversation to this discussion she’s been trying to talk about, to bring up on the trail, as she is again ensnared in a campaign that’s more difficult than expected, in an election dominated by the language of anger and fear.
“I am talking about love and kindness," she says.
As Clinton sees it, she’s really talking about a “shorthand” for her personal and political beliefs, for all the impulses that shape what she does and how she does it. She is talking about the core of “what I believe and who I am.” Even if no one views her that way. Even if she’s never been quite able to explain it. Even if she still isn’t known for the vision she’s been trying to share for decades, going back to the beginning. Even if her earnest efforts to connect with people are hampered not just by her image, but by the actual barriers of public life. After so many years, how do you convince a nation full of people who think they know everything about you that they don't?
“I can only just be the person I am and continue to stand for what I feel like I have always stood for, in terms of values and in terms of my core beliefs,” Clinton says. “And of course, policies come and go, policies change. I mean, good grief, of course that’s the case. But who I am is pretty much who I’ve always been.”
This was 1969. She is 21, still Hillary Diane Rodham — senior class president, bound for Yale Law School, full of big and unrestrained talk about the future, first student commencement speaker in the history of Wellesley College. And there at the podium, in full cap and gown, she diverts from her prepared remarks, and the words come tumbling out — urgent and excited and abstract at points beyond comprehension. She calls for human connectedness and understanding, for a more conscientious state of being. Her target is the “empty rhetoric” of the preceding speaker, a sitting U.S. senator. “What does it mean,” she asks of his speech, “to hear that 13.3% of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That’s a percentage.” She and her classmates, Rodham says, demand “a more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating mode of living” — a society “where you don’t see people as percentage points,” a restored “mutuality of respect.”
The speech makes news. No one knows what to think of it. Rodham, in one of her first interviews, attempts to explain: What is needed, she tells the Boston Globe that June, is a “‘new vocabulary’ to deal with relationships between people.”
Two decades pass, and Clinton again tries to talk about these convictions, more developed now, more tangible and complete, but still fundamentally the same.
This was 1993. She is first lady — a few months into the job, head of her husband’s health care effort, split between the White House and the hospital room in Little Rock, Arkansas, where her father lies brain-dead, 18 days after a stroke. There is a speech she can’t get out of — 14,000 people at the University of Texas — and on the plane ride to Austin, in longhand, she sketches out a second appeal for the same “mutuality of respect.”
“We need a new politics of meaning,” she tells the crowd. “We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring… a society that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Again, she makes news. Again, reporters come calling. And again, Clinton tries to explain. That spring, she gives a series of interviews on the subject of her beliefs — political, philosophical, and spiritual. The transcripts, archived at the Clinton Presidential Library, capture a time before the worst of the White House years. The first lady is not so hardened yet to public life. Conversation is easy. She is, it seems, thinking out loud. (Clinton, on the human condition. Clinton, on the ancient Greeks. Clinton, quoting poetry! “Dying is fine, but death, oh, baby, I wouldn’t like death if death were good.”) For pages and pages, without restraint, she talks about the origins of the speech. “This is something I’ve thought about for many years,” she says. “It’s really something that goes back to even my incoherent but heartfelt commencement speech at Wellesley.”
“I just want to talk about it,” Clinton tells one reporter. “If I use up all your time, we’ll do some more, OK? Because this is real important to me.”
What she wants to talk about hinges on a simple question of how we can, as humans, better treat one another. To Hillary Clinton, this is politics. She’s talking, literally, about “going back and actually living by the Golden Rule.” She’s talking about a “great renaissance of caring in this country.” Part of the challenge is the vocabulary. “A lot of this is hard to talk about,” Clinton admits. “I’m not real articulate about it."
The speech and subsequent interviews — earnest, unembarrassed, and decidedly open — are laughed at in Washington. Columnists call her a New Age “aspiring philosopher queen.” One compares her remarks to “a cross between Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech and a term paper on Siddhartha,” with all the “distinctive marks of adolescent self-discovery.” The New Republic asks: “It is good to hear the First Lady is also pro-meaning, but before we sign on, one question: What on earth are these people talking about?”
Another two decades pass, and Hillary Clinton doesn’t sound like she did then.
This was 2015, back at that small table in New Hampshire, a couple weeks before Christmas. She is not a college kid or first lady anymore. She is nine months into her second presidential campaign, and running with discipline. She spares fewer words now and confides fewer thoughts. She doesn’t quote poetry or “just want to talk about it” with the press. And for all the headlines back then, she’s no longer cast as the New Age theorist behind a “politics of meaning” push.
The language is simpler now. There’s no “mutuality of respect” or “politics of meaning.” There has been no big speech, and the press hasn’t come calling. It’s nothing abstract or long-winded. It’s just a simple aside on the trail — a few words about love and kindness.
“I’ve been working for several months now on how to really inject this more into my speeches at every turn,” Clinton says in the kitchen in New Hampshire, “and to try to link it with my vision of where we can go in our country. And I’m hoping that I am getting closer to that. I’ve made some progress — not enough.”
It wasn’t something she planned. Just an ad lib.
This was the day in June after nine people were gunned down, mid-prayer, inside their church in South Carolina. Clinton had even been there that day, in Charleston, and received the news of the shooting on the plane ride out. She was speaking at a conference on the West Coast, and that’s where it slipped out for the first time. “I know it’s not usual for somebody running for president to say what we need more of in this country is love and kindness,” she said. “But that’s exactly what we need more of.”
A few weeks later, standing on a sweep of green in Hanover, New Hampshire, Clinton took it further. “I want this campaign, and eventually my administration,” she said, “to be more about inspiring young people, and older ones as well, to find that niche where kindness matters, whether it’s to a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, a fellow student — whether it’s in the classroom, or a doctor’s office, or in a business — we need to do more to help each other.
“That’s what my campaign is about,” she said. “I want more kindness.”
After that, every so often, at a town hall or rally, there was Clinton, asking for more love and kindness. Her speechwriter, Dan Schwerin, says he eventually started making room for the line in some drafts — never writing the words himself, just adding a placeholder in brackets. Nine months into the race, Clinton hasn’t positioned “love and kindness” as anything more than that: a contained riff. The line strikes a markedly different tone than the “Fighting for Us” banners and signs that follow the candidate to every event.
She doesn’t talk about this in the language of a campaign. Backstage after the New Hampshire event, she leans back in her folding chair and describes “love and kindness” as the latest articulation of her same view of politics — not as abstract or esoteric as in 1969 and 1993. “It’s sort of a shorthand,” she says. “I think about it in the same way, maybe expressed differently, and I’m always trying to figure out how I can pierce through the cynicism and create more openness to talking about it.”
There’s an obvious deliberateness with which Clinton has thought about her own past and present. (“Through-themes of my adult life” is a phrase she uses.) For years, she kept a small book stuffed with favorite quotes, lines of Scripture, stories ripped from newspapers and magazines, ideas to keep her on track “when things get hard,” she once said. A reminder of “what’s really at stake.” Across five decades — in hundreds of pages of documents from the archives at Wellesley, the Clinton Library, and the State Department — the same phrases and references appear, almost verbatim, going all the way back to 1969. She is quoted talking about the influence of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “habits of the heart” — the uniquely American traits, including participation in local politics, that the French thinker identified in his work Democracy in America — from campaign events this year, to speeches in the 1990s, to the interview she gave the Boston Globe at age 21.
Today, she can cast a line back to her childhood in Park Ridge, Illinois, the middle-class Chicago suburb, and tie the lessons from her mother and father and youth minister, Rev. Don Jones, to the questions she wrestled with in college, to the cases she handled as an advocate, to speeches she delivered decades later, to this present moment. And all of it, in Clinton’s telling, starts with John Wesley, founder of her Methodist faith, and his admonition to “do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, for as long as you can.”
“This has been a continuum with her,” says Melanne Verveer, one of Clinton’s closest and longest-serving advisers. “Nobody said to her, well, you should talk about community, and you should talk about service, and you should talk about how we should treat each other. I mean, that was fundamentally who she was. This is a woman who taught Sunday school.
“This is deeply who she is,” Verveer says.
For decades, Clinton has characterized service as not just a channel for meaning in life — but the meaning of life itself. “Service is the rent we pay for living,” she often told audiences, quoting a mentor of many years, Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, where Clinton began working in 1970. “It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.” When a reporter once asked whether she felt “a sense of mission” — whether service felt like something she was “supposed to be doing” — Clinton responded flatly, “It just feels like who I am.”
When she was a girl, her late mother, Dorothy Rodham, taught Sunday school classes. The essence of her spiritual teaching? “A sense of the good.” This, Clinton would later say, was all she wanted to get across in the “politics of meaning” speech. She didn’t understand why people thought she was talking about “great, giant themes and theories,” as Clinton put it afterward. “I was talking about being kind to the woman who cleans your office building, inquiring how she is, seeing her as a human being.”
Examined now, the speech carries a distinctly ’90s flavor. Clinton talked about the “spiritual vacuum” left by the ’80s — about an “ethos of selfishness and greed,” adults “bewildered by their own lives,” “division and alienation,” a fear of crime and drugs and the rise of mass media. The ideological debate between market and government solutions, as Clinton saw it, didn’t account for these problems. She offers a similar dichotomy now, adjusted to the politics of 2016. “The debate that has gone on — between those who say mostly on the left, ‘Everything is economic,’ and those mostly on the right who say, ‘Everything is cultural’ — are really missing it,” she says. “I mean, it is both. There is a level of economic security and opportunity that is essential to human dignity. But that doesn’t translate into meaning and purpose for one’s life.”
Now, Clinton sees a similar alienation in the current dynamics of terrorism — the kind where people leave jobs and homes in London or Brussels for ISIS. “Many of the young people, predominantly men, who are caught up in this latest wave of terrorism are educated,” she says. “They have other options in their lives, which for whatever reason they reject to move toward this ideology that promises such meaning and purpose, even though we looking at it think of it as perverse, evil, and hateful.”
In ways, though, Clinton’s “sense of the good” talk seems ill-fitted for the electoral moment. She does not talk about economics as the principal foundation to politics, the way that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and others in the populist left do. And the past year in politics has been dominated by two unlikely presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Sanders, who have captured the anger felt across both parties.
To many, Clinton’s “love and kindness” line might sound like a clichéd campaign answer to the emotion driving Trump in particular. Former aides worry that the years of thought and effort that precede the subject might be lost in a race in which her staff has not sought to explain the line further. Though, as one put it, some see “that wellspring is being tapped more and more,” at least compared to her campaign eight years ago.
When asked whether she is more “herself” as a candidate than in 2008, Clinton pauses. “Hmm. I don't know the answer to that question. I really don't know,” she says.
“But I also believe there is a learning process that anybody who does this has to go through. And I am trying very hard to present the most, shall we say, holistic view of what I believe and what I want to do.”
But do people in this campaign — do they get it?
An aide thinks over the question, then replies, “Not always.”
“I just have a question.”
This is how it sometimes starts.
It plays out again, and again — the voters who come to Clinton’s campaign events, and share, into a microphone, with dozens or hundreds of strangers looking on and listening in, their personal, often painful stories.
“I just have a question. My mother recently passed away,” a woman told Clinton and about 60 other people in a coffee shop in Newton, Iowa, last fall. “She struggled with chemical dependency and mental health issues.” She couldn’t get doctors to understand, and so she turned to other things, and then she overdosed. Now her nephew can’t get help. He’s in the house, he doesn’t have insurance, and in Newton there’s a three-month wait just to see a psychiatrist, and their only option might be to hospitalize him for a week, and on and on, until she’s crying.
“I’m so sorry about your mother," Clinton said. "I’m really sorry. And I am very worried about your nephew. I really want to thank you. It’s not easy to say these things.”
Clinton often encounters stories like this — accounts of frustration and disappointment, with details friends might not know and problems that no policy might fix. At her town halls, as hands shoot up across the room, angling for the chance to ask a question, there will be one or two only hoping, mostly, for the chance to talk — to tell Clinton, to tell anyone maybe, about the terrible thing that happened or the person who died. For these voters, no matter what the topic, the question is already understood: Can she help me?
“I had that happen in the photo line just now!” Clinton announces in the kitchen, midway through a discussion of how, exactly, this plays out.
It was a volunteer at the event in Manchester, New Hampshire. “This woman comes up to me, and she says, ‘I’m really workin’ hard for you. I’ve got a lot of time on my hands, because I had a terrible accident two years ago, and turns out I wasn’t eligible for anything.’” The woman wasn’t asking for help, says Clinton. Still, she sent her across the room to talk to the campaign's state director, Mike Vlacich, just as she sent the woman in Iowa to an aide there. “Immediately, I’m thinking, Oh god, maybe there’s some way we can help her. I’m not sure if there is.”
Any candidate, at any event, can encounter voters like this. But for Clinton, these are the moments when she feels she can carry out her own ideas about politics. These are the moments that “pierce the political screen” of a campaign apparatus. These are moments, as she puts it in New Hampshire, that are “worth everything to me.”
“What I found is if I was there as a lawyer or if I was there as an advocate, people would open up to me because they were seeing me as someone who might help them,” she says. “What I was surprised about — you know, I saw with my husband and others, but not to the extent that I found it with myself — when I started running for the Senate, I'd have these encounters that were so intimate...so personal...so quickly. And I'd look in people's eyes and I could see that they were saying, ‘I'm going to tell this story, because maybe — maybe — she could help me.’"
“That all comes from the same place,” says Karen Finney, a senior campaign spokeswoman and a longtime Clinton aide, of the impulses behind the “love and kindness” mantra. “All those little moments on the rope line with people — she’s really adamant with staff. When she says, get their number or get their card and follow up, she really means it.”
From Clinton's offices in Brooklyn, the campaign maintains its own constituent services shop of sorts. Week to week, it is assured that voters like the woman in Manchester don’t leave before an aide makes an introduction. Often, the candidate is the one who facilitates. In New Hampshire, you’ll see her stop on a rope line, scanning the room for Vlacich. In Iowa, you’ll hear her in a crowd, calling to no one in particular — “Where’s Matt? Anybody see Matt?” — before someone summons state director Matt Paul to the voter with the issue to pursue or problem to fix or story to remember. That Clinton actually follows through on these in-passing commitments is considered imperative: A few months into the race, aides began tracking encounters in a spreadsheet to ensure the campaign make good on promises to follow up, be in touch, or look into this or that.
It’s not an ideological approach. On the campaign trail, the result is a mix of pragmatism and what she has called the “human dimension.” “Emotion is a necessary engine, because you got to have a track you're going down once you get it fired up,” as she put it in the ’90s. Today, she says she describes the presidency in the same way, in language not often applied to the role. “I see the presidency, yes, in its obvious historic terms. You have to run the executive branch, you have to be the commander-in-chief, you have to work with the Congress,” she says. “But I also see it as a catalyst, as a convener, as a collaborator and a coordinator.”
To do any of this on the campaign trail, though, Clinton actually needs to be near people, physically. She describes this as “a level of intimacy that you don't get unless you're somehow in somebody else's space.”
This has been difficult for a long time now. In 1992, when she arrived at the White House, it was the thing she said she missed most: access to that space, to the individual interactions she valued. There was a physical buffer now, and it was always there — would always be there. “I feel cut off from people,” she said by her second year as first lady. “There is no substitution for that kind of personal contact.” At least during her husband’s presidential campaign, you could “stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts. You got a chance to sit down across the counter and talk to some single parent who was working the midnight-to-8 shift,” she said. “There wouldn’t be anything between you and her. You had a sense of being anchored in your life as well as other people’s lives.”
Clinton has now lived more than 20 years this way. The interactions between her and the outside world, particularly now and particularly on a presidential campaign, come in artificial situations: the rally, the organizing event, the parade, the small gathering invariably arranged by someone else. The thinner the buffer between Clinton and the outside world, the more unpredictable the interactions can become. A stretch of New Hampshire road last Fourth of July went from sleepy hometown parade to 15-minute nightmare of hecklers and reporters, with campaign aides roping press off to create room, as Clinton advanced unfazed. (“She has become a genius at compartmentalization,” one former aide says.)
It’s not easy for Clinton to actually share private space with people. Between the security, the press aides, the press, the advance staffers who find the event spaces and get voters there and coordinate between the security and the press aides and the press, Clinton does not move without being accompanied by massive machinery.
Maybe that barrier creates expectations of indifference in voters. Maybe it puts Clinton in a role of agency. Because up close, on the rope line, in the small meeting, across the table, people walk away surprised by, and often sold on, Clinton. She is aware of this, that she succeeds in these small spaces. “I really believe that personal connection,” she says, “is what gets me the level of loyal support that I have, because people do believe that I will do exactly what I've told them. I can't promise a specific result, but I can promise my best efforts.”
The problem is, these interactions often go unseen, in private or far from the press. The problem is, it’s a style of politics that plays out on the smallest scale, voter by voter by voter — and that’s hard to translate to the outside, or to more than one person at a time, and always has been.
“It's hard to do on a mass scale,” Clinton concedes. “I'm well aware of that. It is hard, because I am who I am. And I'm not going to pretend to be otherwise.”
In the spring of 1993, perhaps more than any other time in her life, Hillary Clinton was trying to show that to people: the complete view of who she is. In the interviews that followed her politics of meaning speech, she talked about her belief in service and “individual responsibility.” She talked about her little book of quotes and clips. She talked about her youth minister, about lessons from her parents and Wellesley and the tumult of the 1960s — and about the way she tries to bring all of that together, whether she had the right words or not, into new, more loving, more human politics.
This was the full picture — one she described back then as part of an effort to “feel as though I’ve led a coherent, integrated life.” As Clinton put it, the integrated life was a balance of family, work, and community — an understanding of self and a union of “the spiritual and the emotional and the psychological and the physical — all of that,” she told one reporter in 1993. “I mean, I’m not there. I don’t want to mislead you.”
This was Clinton giving over all her complexity and paradox, with all the details and private thoughts that people might only tentatively share with another person, except she did it in a speech and in long and open conversations with reporters — all in the days and weeks after her father’s death. “That came from deep inside of her. Obviously it was a very emotional time, in the process of losing her dad,” says Verveer, who at the time served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. “But I also think it opened her up to demonstrating what her core beliefs are. When I read it, I thought, Well this is the person I know. This is the person I know. Simple as that.”
And afterward, Clinton was met with months of coverage that she described afterward as glib and mocking, dismissing her ideas as “soft and gushy” or “meaningless and empty.”
Her staff was crushed. Years later, people who worked for her in the White House recall that spring as painful — the kind of episode that will never be funny, that will always sting. The reaction was unbearable. “I felt like, god, this woman just lost her father. She’s trying to be so honest and open and vulnerable,” one former aide says. “Don’t we want people to be thoughtful about this stuff? Shouldn’t we want this from our leaders?”
Clinton took particular issue with a cover story in the New York Times Magazine by Michael Kelly, to whom she’d given two interviews. “My words were derided,” she writes in her memoir, Living History. The article took Clinton’s ideas at face value, but also described some of them as “easy, moralistic preaching couched in the gauzy and gushy wrappings of New Age jargon.”
Not mentioned in Clinton’s memoir is the matter of the pictures. Inside the magazine, opposite the headline, “Saint Hillary,” an illustration depicts the first lady beneath a golden halo. The cover features Clinton posed in a silky all-white dress against an all-white backdrop. Verveer remembers flying back to Washington with Clinton one day, not long before the photo shoot. “We had no idea how the story was gonna turn out or what it would be about. But on the plane, she said, ‘What do you think I should wear?’” They decided on white. “And that white dress was interpreted as dressing herself as this innocent goody-two-shoes God-knows-what... And it was like, where did this come from?" (Clinton doesn’t elaborate much on the “Saint Hillary” piece when mentioned in the interview.)
New York Times Magazine, May 23, 1993.
At the time, Clinton vowed to keep talking about the ideas behind her speech. And she did, occasionally. They became the basis for much of her book It Takes a Village. But Clinton dropped the phrase “politics of meaning.” (She’d taken the term from the Jewish writer Michael Lerner, who became the subject of articles about Clinton’s new “guru,” followed by articles about his attempts to deny his role as anyone’s “guru,” before flying to Washington to hold a poorly attended press conference to defend his “politics of meaning” from ridicule, prompting more coverage.)
By her second year as first lady, she saw Washington as a place that could “capture” a person. “This year has taxed every fiber of my being, because I do not want to be a cynical person,” she told an interviewer in 1994. In the media, she said, questions like “how you reach out” and “how you care” are “not fashionable things to talk about.”
Two decades later, Clinton still thinks so. In fact, she says, talking about something like “love and kindness” may be even harder now than before. She is wary of a cynical reaction to the line, and heightened to the changes in media and technology that have altered the process of campaigning. “It’s so much harder than it used to be,” she says. “You don't get a chance to think before you have to respond to something.”
Clinton believes what’s required of politicians to be successful has changed in some fundamental ways. Though she doesn’t frame it this way, she is at a unique vantage point, having been at the center of four presidential campaigns over the last 25 years during a period of massive media change, from the rise of CNN and the internet, to the decline of the daily newspaper and the editorial board endorsement, and to the current moment in which phone-captured video is instantly shareable and Twitter dominates the delivery of political news.
Sitting in the kitchen, after a campaign event and before another one, she says she thinks any politician — and here she is not talking in partisan terms — faces greater challenges than they did in the past. She thinks the changed media environment has changed politics, and that any politician today understands this. “They're aware that they have to break through in the media, on social media in particular — and how do you do that if you are not somewhat confrontational, somewhat controversial?”
"The cynicism or skepticism that really stalks most political journalists is pretty clear," she says. But women, Clinton notes, have been more interested in questions surrounding her motivations. “I don't want to sound sexist about this, but I think women who have interviewed me have been more interested. I don't know why. I can't explain it.”
Part of the issue, as Clinton puts it, is that a candidate’s motivations might have no place in the new media environment: “A conversation like this doesn't lend itself to a tweet, for example.” And the need to “break through,” as she puts it, “makes the discussion about what we’re doing this for, and who we’re trying to help, and why us... it makes that discussion harder to have because it's not considered interesting.”
“The vocabulary is, I think, somewhat challenging because there is such a premium on skepticism, even cynicism, in our political discourse right now,” Clinton continues, sitting forward. She can even predict the questions — questions she’s probably heard before. “People will say, ‘Oh, what’s the angle. What does that really mean? How do you translate that?’ or ‘Why is she saying that? She's got some ulterior motive, right?’”
“I am aware of that,” she says. “I don't want to undermine what I am trying to do and what I am trying to say by triggering such a dismissive reaction as could come.”
“So, I don't know,” she trails off. “I think that there are life experiences and, you know when I talk about this stuff, I talk about this with my friends, my girlfriends, right? I mean, we have these conversations. We trade quotes. We trade books. We trade ideas. And it's totally normal for us. We’ve gone through so much together: deaths, divorce, illness, and good things like grandchildren. So people in those settings, it’s very natural to have these kinds of conversations, right? And it's just not in the public discourse very much — so now whether what I am trying to do will have any impact or not, we will see.”
Public life has a way of taking the coherent and the integrated, and breaking it down into individual pieces, to be labeled and sorted. This is how Hillary Clinton used to articulate it back in the ’90s, during her first year or so in the White House. In her view, you couldn’t be “complex.” You couldn’t be “rounded.” You couldn’t be many things all at once. “You have to be either-or.” The language is violent — as if you can literally unravel inside the political system, as if people “nitpick around the edges,” “force” you into “boxes,” pull you “out of one corner,” push you “into another corner.”
“And if you give into it, you really can begin to pull yourself apart.”
This was a lasting, wearing effect of the 1993 experience, aides from the time recall. “Unfortunately, when you get whacked upside the head like she did after the politics of meaning speech, you tend to retreat and restrain yourself a bit more, which is a shame,” says one. “I do think it had a bit of a dampening effect.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating. This is her heart. This is who she is,” another one of Clinton’s White House aides says. “The most important thing is she has to continue to go back to that theme. It hasn’t stopped her from having that conversation where she can.”
But for all that she has tried to inject the language of “love and kindness” into her speeches — and back into the broader political discourse — Clinton has expended far less energy now trying to explain all that the line encapsulates in personal terms.
“Part of it,” she admits, “is maybe I don't think to mention it.”
Maybe she isn’t as concerned with communicating her motivations. Maybe she accepts the reality that still frustrates her close aides and saddens her good friends — that Clinton is not widely known for the worldview she described first in 1969, and again in 1993 — and maybe won’t ever be known for it, except to close friends and aides. Maybe she’s resigned to the fact that she could be misunderstood, that “love and kindness” might just sound like a line, that more than anything it might invite mockery.
“Maybe it's just something I've gotten used to,” she says, toward the end of the interview, at this point speaking without any edge. “And so I don't have a personal... sense of disappointment, or being misunderstood, because I’m aware that I present personally a kind of Rorschach test to so many people.” That’s been true since the 1969 commencement, when, as Clinton writes in her memoir, “my mother reported that opinion about my speech seemed to be divided between the overly effuse — ‘she spoke for a generation’ — to the exceedingly negative — ‘who does she think she is?’”
“So when I get the zing, or the criticism, you know, I don’t take it so much to heart,” she says. “I try to take criticism seriously, but not personally. Like if somebody writes something or says something that is critical, you know, I will kind of process it and think, Well maybe there is something to that. But I won't take it personally. Not anymore. It's not gonna get to me.”
She is still bringing it up. She’s still trying to talk about it. She’s still asking simply and plainly for love and kindness. The integrated life, she says, is something you strive for, not achieve. “I am not sure anybody ever gets there. But recognizing the path and being willing to keep moving forward — and trying to do better to be a coherent person with a coherent set of beliefs, and a value placed on what's most important in your life, and maybe life in general — is what I continue to strive for.”
“I try to do it every day.”
Ruby Cramer is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Ruby Cramer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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